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Ferdinand Tönnies

Ferdinand Tönnies
Tönnies, c. 1915
Born(1855-07-26)26 July 1855
Died9 April 1936(1936-04-09) (aged 80)
Alma materUniversity of Jena
University of Bonn
University of Leipzig
University of Berlin
University of Tübingen
Known forSociological Theory; distinction between two types of social groups, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Kiel

Ferdinand Tönnies (German: [ˈtœniːs]; 26 July 1855 – 9 April 1936) was a German sociologist, economist, and philosopher. He was a significant contributor to sociological theory and field studies, best known for distinguishing between two types of social groups, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (community and society). He co-founded the German Society for Sociology together with Max Weber and Georg Simmel and many other founders. He was president of the society from 1909 to 1933,[1] after which he was ousted for having criticized the Nazis. Tönnies was regarded as the first proper German sociologist and published over 900 works, contributing to many areas of sociology and philosophy. Tönnies, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel are considered the founding fathers of classical German sociology. Though there has been a resurgence of interest in Weber and Simmel, Tönnies has not drawn as much attention.[2]


Early life

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Ferdinand Tönnies was born on 26 July 1855 on the Haubarg "De Reap," Oldenswort on the Eiderstedt Peninsula into a wealthy farmer's family in North Frisia, Schleswig, then under Danish rule. Tönnies was the only sociologist of his generation who came from the countryside. He was the third child of church chief and farmer August Ferdinand Tönnies (1822–1883), and his wife Ida Frederica (born Mau, 1826–1915), came from a theological family from East Holstein. His father, of Frisian ancestry, was a successful farmer and cattle rancher, while his mother hailed from a line of Lutheran ministers. The two had seven children, four sons and three daughters. On the day he was born, Ferdinand Tönnies received the baptismal name of Ferdinand Julius and moved to Husum, on the North Sea, after his father retired in 1864.

Education and academic career

Tönnies enrolled at the University of Strasbourg after graduating from high school in 1872. They took the time to utilize his freedom to travel, exploring the academic fields of the University of Jena, Bonn, Leipzig, Berlin, and Tübingen. At age 22, he received a doctorate in philology at the University of Tübingen in 1877 (with a Latin thesis on the ancient Siwa Oasis).[3] However, by this time, his main interests had switched to political philosophy and social issues. After completing postdoctoral work at the University of Berlin, he traveled to London to continue his studies on the seventeenth-century English political thinker Thomas Hobbes. Tönnies earned a Privatdozent in philosophy at the University of Kiel from 1909 to 1933 after submitting a draft of his major book, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, as his Habilitationsschrift in 1881. He held this post at the University of Kiel for only three years. Because he sympathized with the Hamburg dockers' strike of 1896,[4] the conservative Prussian government considered him to be a social democrat, and Tönnies would not be called to a professorial chair until 1913. He returned to Kiel as a professor emeritus in 1921 where he took on a teaching position in sociology and taught until 1933 when he was ousted by the Nazis, due to earlier publications in which he had criticized them and had endorsed the Social Democratic Party.[5][6] Remaining in Kiel, he died three years later in isolation in his home in 1936.

Sociological contributions

Many of his writings on sociological theories furthered pure sociology, including Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887). He coined the metaphysical term Voluntarism. Tönnies also contributed to the study of social change, particularly on public opinion,[7] customs and technology, crime, and suicide.[8] He also had a vivid interest in methodology, especially statistics, and sociological research, inventing his own technique of statistical association.[9] After publishing Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Tönnies focused aspects of the social life such as morals, folkways, and public opinion. However he is best known for his published work on Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft because his later works applied the same concepts to aspects of social life.[10]

Chronological timeline of life and career

  • 1855: Born, 26 July, Oldenswort, in the Duchy of Schleswig
  • 1864: Prusso-Austrian invasion and absorption of Schleswig-Holstein into Prussia after contest with Denmark.
  • 1865: Tönnies family moved to Husum, where his father took up merchant banking.
  • 1867: Tönnies entered the local grammar school, studied Greek, Latin and German classical literature.
  • 1870: Franco-Prussian War; creation of German empire. Tönnies met Schleswegian poet and folk-hero, Theodor Storm, who became a life-long influence.
  • 1871-7: Studied at the universities of Strasbourg, Jena, Leipzig, Berlin, Kiel and Tübingen. Gained doctorate in Greek philology at Tübingen. Became a close friend of Friedrich Paulsen, an admirer of Kant, Lassalle and Hobbes.
  • 1878: First visit to England. Worked on Hobbes' manuscripts at the British Museum, Oxford and Hardwick.
  • 1879–81: Published 'Remarks on the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes', in Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie (Quarterly Journal of Scientific Philosophy)
  • 1881: An early version of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft submitted as his Habilitationsschrift at University of Kiel.
  • 1887: First edition of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft: Abhandlung des Communismus und des Socialismus als empirischer Culturformen (Community and Society: An Essay on Communism and Socialism as Historical Social System).
  • 1889: After prolonged delay, Tönnies' editions of Hobbes' Elements of Law Natural and Politic and Behemoth published in English.
  • 1890: Failed to obtain a university professorship; became a Privatdozent at Kiel.
  • 1892: Helped found Society for Ethical Culture, the vehicle for his life-long involvement in various co-operative, social reform and self-improvement movements.
  • 1893: Offered a university chair, on condition that he gave up Society for Ethical Culture, which he refused.
  • 1894: Marriage to Marie Sieck, daughter of a Protestant minister from the Schleswegian town of Eutin. Five children born over the next ten years.
  • 1896: First edition of Thomas Hobbes. Leben und Lehre (Thomas Hobbes: Life and Work). Tönnies' support for Hamburg dock strike compounds his difficulties in gaining a university chair.
  • 1899–1900: Tönnies' prize essay on 'Philosophical Terminology' published in an English translation by Helen Bosanquet in Mind.
  • 1904: Visited America for International Arts and Sciences Congress at St Louis. Contacts with sociologists of the Chicago School (sociology).
  • 1908: House guest of Max and Marianne Weber during the International Philosophy Congress at Heidelberg.
  • 1909: First edition of his book on Die Sitte (Custom). With Max Weber and Georg Simmel, founding member of the German Society for Sociology. Tönnies would be president of this body for most of his life.
  • 1912: Second edition with new subtitle of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundbegriffe der reinen Soziologie (Community and Society: Basic Concepts in Pure Sociology) and of Tönnies' study of Hobbes.
  • 1913: Secures his first permanent chair, a professorship of 'economic political science', at the university of Kiel.
  • 1917: Publication of Der englische Staat und der deutsche Staat (The English State and the German State).
  • 1920: Third edition of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft.
  • 1921: Publication of Marx, Leben und Lehre (Marx, Life and Work).
  • 1922: Publication of Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung (Critique of Public Opinion).
  • 1923: Autobiographical sketch published in Die Philosophie der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellung (The Philosophy of the Present in Self-Representation).
  • 1925: Tönnies's major writings collected in Soziologische Studien und Kritiken (Sociological Studies and Critiques). Third edition of book on Thomas Hobbes.
  • 1931: Publication of Einführung in die Soziologie (Introduction to Sociology).
  • 1932: Joined the Social Democratic party to support resistance to the rise of fascism.
  • 1933: Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany. Tönnies stripped of his honorary professorship at Kiel, academic pension and personal library by local Nazi administration.
  • 1935: A major conference at Leipzig in honour of Tönnies's eightieth birthday. Eighth edition of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Publication of his final work, Geist der Neuzeit (Spirit of Modern Times).
  • 1936: Death of Tönnies.
  • 2000: Josie Klaus Heberle, Tönnies' great great grandchild was born in Jeffersonville, IN.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Tönnies distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft—often translated as community (or left untranslated)—refers to groups based on feelings of togetherness and mutual bonds, which are felt like a goal to be kept up, their members being means for this goal. Gesellschaft—often translated as society—on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by it being instrumental for their members' aims and goals. The equilibrium in Gemeinschaft is achieved through means of social control, such as morals, conformism, and exclusion, while Gesellschaft keeps its balance through police, laws, tribunals, and prisons. Amish and Hasidic communities are examples of Gemeinschaft, while states are types of Gesellschaft. Rules in Gemeinschaft are implicit, while Gesellschaft has explicit rules (written laws).

Gemeinschaft may be exemplified historically by a family or a neighborhood in a pre-modern (rural) society; Gesellschaft by a joint-stock company or a state in a modern society, i.e. the society when Tönnies lived. Gesellschaft relationships arose in an urban and capitalist setting, characterized by individualism and impersonal monetary connections between people. Social ties were often instrumental and superficial, with self-interest and exploitation increasingly the norm. Examples are corporations, states, or voluntary associations. In his book Einteilung der Soziologie (Classification of Sociology) he distinguished between three disciplines of sociology, being Pure or Theoretical (reine, theoretische) Sociology, Applied (angewandte) Sociology, and Empirical (emprische) Sociology.

His distinction between social groupings is based on the assumption that there are only two primary forms of an actor's will to approve of other men. For Tönnies, such approval is by no means self-evident; he is pretty influenced by Thomas Hobbes.[2] Following his "essential will" ("Wesenwille"), an actor will see himself as a means to serve the goals of social grouping; very often, it is an underlying, subconscious force. Groupings formed around an essential will are called a Gemeinschaft. The other will is the "arbitrary will" ("Kürwille"): An actor sees a social grouping as a means to further his individual goals, so it is purposive and future-oriented. Groupings around the latter are called Gesellschaft. Whereas the membership in a Gemeinschaft is self-fulfilling, a Gesellschaft is instrumental for its members. In pure sociology—theoretically—these two standard types of will are to be strictly separated; in applied sociology—empirically—they are always mixed.

Gender Polarity in "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft"

What is less well-known when discussing the work of Tönnies is that he frequently uses gender concepts to explain his main ideas. Essential will-arbitrary will, Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft, are all thought of in terms of the polarity of feminine-masculine. Gemeinschaft, for example, is feminine: "the eternal-feminine," since motherliness is the basis of all being together. Essential will is also feminine, whereas Gesellschaft and arbitrary choice are masculine.[11] Tönnies' theory appears to consign him to a nineteenth-century view of the public world belonging to males, while women are relegated to the private realm, as it links together Gemeinschaft/home/woman as opposed to Gesellschaft/marketplace/man.

Views on Family

In his article "Funfzehn Thesen zur Erneuerung eines Familienlebens," published in 1893, he claims that the dissolution of family life has tainted modern society's blood. Tonnies believed that one of the most important ways to resurrect Gemeinschaft in the modern world would be to improve and prolong family life.[11]

The demise of the family is caused by modern capitalism and its consequences: low pay, excessive hours of labor for men and women alike, and terrible living conditions. He believes family life has to be revitalized since it is the foundation of all culture and morals.[11] In this case, he proposed two solutions that revolved around the idea of unions devoted to aid and nurture, as he would claim, "the family spirit."

Two Solutions

  1. The first would be groupings of organically linked families who, in order to strengthen family life, would preserve family documents, correspond regularly, gather at family festivals, and assist one another by pooling resources. A family fund would be set up to help those who had fallen on hard times or who required money to develop unique skills.
  2. The second version would bring together unrelated families and be dedicated to a simpler and healthier way of life, a more serious and reasonable method of social interaction, and a better comprehension of masculine and feminine thought. Three to five families would choose to band together to achieve these goals; eventually, they might live together in a common residence, engage in cooperative purchasing, and even share products. Groups may eventually band together in order to gain greater economic and moral power.[11]


Tönnies' distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, like others between tradition and modernity, has been criticized for over-generalizing differences between societies and implying that all societies were following a similar evolutionary path, an argument which Tönnies himself never actually proclaimed.[12]


Memorial Bust of Ferdinand Tonnies. Sculptor: Raimund Kittl revelation 14 September 2005 John Carstens, location: in front of the Husum Castle with views towards the Kavaliershaus.

The impact that Ferdinand Tönnies left on sociology was the division of groups unconsciously and consciously. His contribution to sociology included fundamental dichotomy, community and society—where structural forms are being made through social life. He separates the idea that individual consciousness vs community consciousness by indicating that community is built through beliefs and society is built through power and a separation of classes.[citation needed]

Published works (selection)

  • 1887: Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Leipzig: Fues's Verlag, 2nd ed. 1912, 8th edition, Leipzig: Buske, 1935 (reprint 2005, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft; latest edition: Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. 1880–1935., hrsg. v. Bettina Clausen und Dieter Haselbach, De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2019 = Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, Band 2); his basic and never essentially changed study of social man; translated in 1957 as "Community and Society", ISBN 0-88738-750-0
  • 1896: Hobbes. Leben und Lehre, Stuttgart: Frommann, 1896, 3rd edn 1925; a philosophical study that reveals his indebtedness to Hobbes, many of whose writings he has edited
  • 1897: Der Nietzsche-Kultus (transl.The Nietzsche Cult), Leipzig: Reisland
  • 1905: "The Present Problems of Social Structure", in: American Journal of Sociology, 10(5), p. 569–588 (newly edited, with annotations, in: Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, tom. 7, Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter 2009, p. 269–285)
  • 1906: Philosophische Terminologie in psychologischer Ansicht, Leipzig: Thomas
  • 1907: Die Entwicklung der sozialen Frage, Leipzig: Göschen
  • 1909: Die Sitte, Frankfurt on Main: Rütten & Loening
  • 1915: Warlike England as seen by herself, New York: Dillingham [1]
  • 1917: Der englische Staat und der deutsche Staat, Berlin: Curius; pioneering political sociology
  • 1921: Marx. Leben und Lehre, Jena: Lichtenstein
  • 1922: Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung, Berlin: Springer; 2nd ed. 2003, Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter (Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, tom. 14); translated as On Public Opinion. Applied sociology revealing Tönnies' thorough scholarship and his commitment as an analyst and critic of modern public opinion
  • 1924, 1926, and 1929: Soziologische Studien und Kritiken, 3 vols, Jena: Fischer, a collection in three volumes of those papers he considered most relevant
  • 1925, Tönnies, F. Einteilung der Soziologie. Zeitschrift Für Die Gesamte Staatswissenschaft. English translation: Classification of Sociology. Journal of the Complete Political Science/ Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 79(1), 1–15. Retrieved from
  • 1926: Fortschritt und soziale Entwicklung, Karlsruhe: Braun
  • 1927: Der Selbstmord in Schleswig-Holstein, Breslau: Hirt
  • 1931: Einführung in die Soziologie, Stuttgart: Enke. His fully elaborated introduction into sociology as a social science (latest edition Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe Band 21, herausgegeben von Dieter Haselbach, De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston 2021, ISBN 978-3-11-015853-3).
  • 1935: Geist der Neuzeit, Leipzig: Buske; 2nd ed. 1998 (in: Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, tom. 22); a study in applied sociology, analysing the transformation from European Middle Ages to modern times
  • 1971: On Sociology: Pure, Applied, and Empirical. Selected writings edited and with an introd. by Werner J. Cahnman and Rudolf Heberle. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-80607-3
  • 1974: On Social Ideas and Ideologies. Edited, Translated, and Annotated by E. G. Jacoby, Harper & Row
  • 1998–: Tönnies' Complete Works (Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe), 24 vols., critically edited by Lars Clausen, Alexander Deichsel, Cornelius Bickel, Rolf Fechner (until 2006), Carsten Schlüter-Knauer, and Uwe Carstens (2006– ), Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter (1998– )
  • Materialien der Ferdinand-Tönnies-Arbeitsstelle am Institut für Technik- und Wissenschaftsforschung der Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, edited by Arno Bammé:
    • 2008: Soziologische Schriften 1891–1905, ed. Rolf Fechner, Munich/Vienna: Profil
    • 2009: Schriften und Rezensionen zur Anthropologie, ed. Rolf Fechner, Munich/Vienna: Profil
    • 2009: Schriften zu Friedrich von Schiller, ed. Rolf Fechner, Munich/Vienna: Profil
    • 2010: Schriften und Rezensionen zur Religion, ed. Rolf Fechner, Profil, Munich/Vienna: Profil
    • 2010: Geist der Neuzeit, ed. Rolf Fechner, Profil-Verlag, Munich/Vienna: Profil
    • 2010: Schriften zur Staatswissenschaft, ed. Rolf Fechner, Profil, Munich/Vienna: Profil
    • 2011: Schriften zum Hamburger Hafenarbeiterstreik, ed. Rolf Fechner, Munich/Vienna: Profl

See also


  1. ^ "DGS – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie: Vorsitzende der DGS". Retrieved 8 March 2021.
  2. ^ a b Adair-Toteff, Christopher (1995). "Ferdinand Tonnies: Utopian Visionary". Sociological Theory. 13 (1): 58–65. doi:10.2307/202006. JSTOR 202006.
  3. ^ De Jove Ammone questionum specimen, Phil. Diss., Tübingen 1877
  4. ^ Ferdinand Tönnies: Hafenarbeiter und Seeleute in Hamburg vor dem Strike 1896/97, in: Archiv für soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik, 1897, vol. 10/2, p. 173-238
  5. ^ See Uwe Carsten, Ferdinand Tönnies: Friese und Weltbürger, Norderstedt 2005, p. 287–299.
  6. ^ Bond, Niall (2013). "Ferdinand Tönnies' appraisal of Karl Marx: Debts and distance". Journal of Classical Sociology. 13 (1): 136–162. doi:10.1177/1468795X12474060. ISSN 1468-795X. S2CID 146935757.
  7. ^ Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung, [1922], in: Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, tom. 14, ed. Alexander Deichsel/Rolf Fechner/Rainer Waßner, de Gruyter, Berlin/New York 2002
  8. ^ Cf. Der Selbstmord von Maennern in Preussen, [Mens en Maatschappij, 1933], in: Ferdinand Tönnies Gesamtausgabe, tom. 22, ed. Lars Clausen, de Gruyter, Berlin/New York 1998, p. 357-380.
  9. ^ Lars Clausen: Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936), in: Christiana Albertina, No. 63, Kiel 2006, p. 663-69
  10. ^ Heberle, Rudolf (1937). "The Sociology of Ferdinand Tönnies". American Sociological Review. 2 (1): 9–25. doi:10.2307/2084562. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2084562.
  11. ^ a b c d Stafford, William (September 1995). "Ferdinand Tönnies on Gender, Women and the Family". History of Political Thought. 16 (3): 391–415. JSTOR 26215877 – via EBSCOhost.
  12. ^ Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Leipzig 1887, §§ 1–40


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Ferdinand Tönnies
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